Karsh, 1941. Winston Churchill
‘One of the great portrait photographers of the 20th century, his subjects were as great as his mastery of technique’ (Time.com, 2015).
The Library and Archives Canada is home to the Karsh collection. The 355,000-item collection includes all the transparencies, prints and negatives that were produced by Karsh from 1933 until acquisition by the Library and Archives in 1987. Negatives alone account for 150,000 items of the inventory.
Yousuf Karsh opened his first studio in 1932. By the time of his retirement in 1992, he had photographed more than 15,000 world leaders, artists and scientists. Over 20 of his images had featured as cover photographs for Life magazine.
As I write, Karsh’s iconic 1941 image of Churchill features on the £5.00 note currently in circulation in the United Kingdom (November 2017).
What, then, of the characteristics which not only define, but set his work apart?
Jerry Fielder worked as Karsh’s photographic assistant between 1979 and 1992, he is now director and curator of Karsh’s estate. Interviewed by Eliza Berman in 2015, Fielder described Karsh’s technique accordingly: ‘you can teach technique, but talent is innate, and he just had a great understanding of light’. In Berman’s words, Karsh considered light to be a tool, and he manipulated it expertly both in the studio and the darkroom.
The lighting in Karsh’s portraits is described as dramatic. Karsh acquired his knowledge under the tutelage of portrait photographer John Garo.
Garo is rarely referred to today. However, he was a well-known member of the photographic community in Boston in the 1930s, and it was to Garo whom Karsh was apprenticed.
It seems very reasonable that Karsh was influenced by the light falling into Garo’s skylight lit studio.
The Ottawa Little Theatre displays several of Karsh’s original photographs. It was also here that Karsh, who was a member of the theatre, learnt about the theatrical lighting which was to become his trademark.
Setting technique aside, Karsh had enormous empathy with his photographic subjects. In his own words: ‘there is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hand, his attitude. This is the moment to record’.
Fielder further describes Karsh’s ability to empathise with his subjects: ‘he traveled regularly, preferring to photograph people in their own environments to maximize their level of comfort in front of the camera. And as much as possible, he spent time getting to know them before even laying a finger on the camera.’
Karsh, 1948. Albert Einstein
Karsh’s study of Albert Einstein (1948) is clearly a masterclass in portrait photography.
The image offers a limited range of values, off-whites through the greys with black being reserved for only the deepest shadows.
The subject is set against a background which suggests an academic setting. Separation of the subject from the background is achieved by shallow depth of field and by subtle illumination of the background.
Gradual transition from light to dark across the subject’s forehead and face suggests beautifully soft lighting, positioned to show the texture of the subject’s wizened skin.
Hands held in a relaxed yet classic contemplative pose, the subject’s eyes, whilst bright and alert, suggest that the sitter’s thoughts are placed elsewhere.
All this results in a portrait which is exquisite.
Applying Barthes (1977) method of analysis, Einstein is clearly the signifier, the signified being his quiet, unassuming and yet superior intellect.
The subject is photographed at a close social distance, the portrait is quite intimate as we are invited into the subject’s personal space. The angle of view suggests subject and viewer are of equal status, the eye-level image portrays neither a sense of superiority or inferiority on the part of the sitter.
Karsh’s trademark theatrical lighting provides the viewer with a reading path through the image which leads to the primary salient feature, the subject’s face, and the secondary salient feature, the sitter’s hands held in contemplative pose.
Once the viewer’s gaze reaches the salient feature, it finds the subject’s gaze makes no demand to engage, instead it makes an offer. Perhaps this offer is to look away from the trivial, the banal, the routine. Certainly, we are left wondering what images this great intellect is capable of seeing. What is in Einstein’s mind’s eye as he sits for this portrait?
So, what is the relevance to my photographic practice?
Whilst Karsh’s portraiture is far removed from the genre of food photography, there is some common ground: irrespective of the genre in which we practice, as photographers we all must understand the nature of light in order to craft it, to shape it, to manipulate it to reveal the true character of our subject.
By working in different genres, and as a consequence understanding how to manipulate light in differing circumstances, I am developing a valuable transferable skill which is only of benefit in my main area of practice.
Karsh’s portraits demonstrate his superb ability to get to the heart of his subjects, to identify their unique character. They also demonstrate his mastery of technique.
But they reach further still, revealing Karsh’s skill at blending empathy and craftsman-like technique to tell a story in a single image.
Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977) Rhetoric of the Image in Image Music Text. London: Fontana
Berman, Eliza (2015). ‘Yousuf Karsh’s Masterful Portraits: from Churchill to Hepburn’. Time.com, 18 March 2015 [online]. Available at: http://time.com/3684569/yousuf-karsh/ (accessed: 04 November 2017)